Pen­nDOT drains Turn­pike cash

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry

The Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike is Amer­ica’s first su­per­high­way. It also has be­come one of the most ex­pen­sive roads in the coun­try to travel. If you are in a pas­sen­ger car driv­ing the en­tire length of the turn­pike from the Delaware River Bridge in the east to Gate­way in the west, it will cost you $42.30 if you pay cash, $30.32 if you have an E-Z Pass.

Travers­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike gets more ex­pen­sive for truck traf­fic, sig­nif­i­cantly more ex­pen­sive. That same east­west trip for the heav­i­est and largest of trucks costs $1,634.35. As if that isn’t bad enough, re­cent an­nual fare hikes are pro­jected to con­tinue into the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Penn­syl­va­nia is known as the Keystone state and for good rea­son. Ge­o­graph­i­cally we are cen­trally lo­cated for both north­south and east-west traf­fic des­tined for some of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lous ci­ties. For decades the turn­pike has been a key traf­fic route, but now both freight haulers and pas­sen­ger cars are seek­ing out other routes — such as In­ter­state 81 that, while a bit out of the way for some, charge no tolls.

Th­ese facts have not es­caped the at­ten­tion of state Au­di­tor Gen­eral Eugene DePasquale who re­cently sounded alarm bells over the turn­pike’s frag­ile fis­cal sit­u­a­tion. In his au­dit of turn­pike prac­tices DePasquale said: “The plan for the turn­pike’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture re­lies on pro­jec­tions call­ing for a 215% in­crease in toll rev­enue be­tween 2015 and 2035 and a 44% in­crease in traf­fic vol­ume through 2044. How­ever, traf­fic vol­ume has re­mained rel­a­tively flat over the last decade.”

Th­ese two pro­jec­tions are in­her­ently con­tra­dic­tory as ba­sic eco­nomics dic­tates that con­sumers use less of a prod­uct as prices rise — es­pe­cially if prices rise at a much faster rate than the in­come of the pur­chaser. Thus, we can ex­pect the past decade’s “rel­a­tively flat” traf­fic vol­umes to ei­ther re­main so, or per­haps even de­cline as such sig­nif­i­cant toll hikes con­tinue to be im­ple­mented. It would be easy to blame mis­man­age­ment and the turn­pike com­mis­sions’ of­ten crit­i­cized hir­ing and con­tract­ing prac­tices for th­ese an­nual rate hikes. But, in this case the prob­lem has been caused by the state leg­is­la­ture, not by turn­pike ad­min­is­tra­tion. Act 44 of 2007 re­quires the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion to make pay­ments of $450 mil­lion per year to the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. Pen­nDOT then spends the money on high­way main­te­nance and on sub­si­diz­ing mass tran­sit op­er­a­tions. Since the pas­sage of Act 44, $5.2 bil­lion in fare rev­enue has been di­verted from turn­pike op­er­a­tions to Pen­nDOT.

Act 44 was passed with the un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion that In­ter­state 80 would be con­verted to a toll road op­er­ated by the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion. That rev­enue would off­set the man­dated sub­sidy to Pen­nDOT. State of­fi­cials ap­pealed to both the Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions for ap­proval of the scheme, but were re­jected. As a re­sult the turn­pike has been sad­dled with mak­ing an­nual pay­ments to Pen­nDOT and no source to fund those trans­fers ex­cept an­nual fare hikes.

The leg­isla­tive man­date is also hav­ing an­other im­pact: the turn­pike is re­duc­ing planned spend­ing on main­te­nance, im­prove­ments, and expansion. An am­bi­tious re­build­ing plan that in­cludes expansion of the turn­pike to six lanes in many ar­eas has al­ready been re­duced by $1 bil­lion over the next 10 years. DePasquale pointed out the folly of the sit­u­a­tion stat­ing: “You can’t cut back on con­struc­tion and in­crease traf­fic 44%, es­pe­cially while jack­ing up the toll rates.”

The sub­si­dies to Pen­nDOT are sched­uled to end in 2022, but by then the turn­pike’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion will be dire. Worse, leg­is­la­tors will then have to de­ter­mine how to fund the in­sa­tiable ap­petite for sub­si­dies re­quired by the state’s money-los­ing mass tran­sit sys­tems.

This prob­lem should have been ad­dressed two years ago when the leg­is­la­ture passed and Gov. Tom Cor­bett signed into law a de facto 30-cent per gal­lon in­crease in gaso­line taxes. That would have been the time to end “hap­haz­ard fund­ing gim­micks” such as Act 44 and placed both the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike and Pen­nDOT on solid fi­nan­cial foot­ing. It didn’t hap­pen then. But it needs to hap­pen now be­fore, as DePasquale con­cluded, the sys­tem col­lapses “and leaves the turn­pike and peo­ple who rely on pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems across the state in a world of hurt.”

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